Bama’s Displaced Millionaires

Chineme Okafor writes on the forced exodus of some prosperous businessmen from Bama and neighbouring towns in Borno State because of the Boko Haram insurgency

Insurgency in Nigeria’s Northeastern state of Borno, an area reportedly about two-and-half times the size of the entire five states in the South-east, has left many people with indescribable tales.

Typically, many families in the towns that the terrorist group, Boko Haram, had ran over have lost both members and means of livelihoods. Some have found very resolute ways to pick up their lives back, moving on mostly to unfamiliar towns and cities as internally displaced people, yet, a lot more appear to have failed to find new lives for themselves.

Amongst those who have moved on are business people or traders from Bama – an area of 4,997 kilometres square and reportedly home to 269,986 people as at the 2006 census, and known mostly for trading in smoked fish from the Lake Chad; petroleum products from downtown parts of Nigeria to border towns with Cameroon, Chad and Niger; as well.

Historically, Bama is one of the towns that constituted the Dikwa Emirate – a successor to the famous Borno Empire. It is fairly close to Nigeria’s border with Cameroon on the northern flank, and once was a thriving commercial hub.

It is also Borno’s second largest town after Damboa. Its geographical position as a border town gives it the exclusive appeal as a commercial hub and its inhabitants made the most of the commercial opportunities it presented until Boko Haram took it over. Those who had, over the years, earned their livelihoods from their toils in Bama were however forced to abandon their businesses and monies when Boko Haram invaded.

According to a humanitarian brief on Bama by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the town was severely affected by the Boko Haram conflict, and was repeatedly attacked between May 2013 and September 2014, until it finally came under the control of the insurgents who reportedly turned it into their headquarters.

Though the Nigerian armed forces reportedly regained control of Bama in March 2015, when they did, its over two years rule by Boko Haram had left it with a devastating socio-economic and humanitarian conditions.

One of those who fled Bama leaving his businesses and capital behind was Alhaji Umar Ali. He told a team of social and community issues researchers which included THISDAY but led by the Participatory Communication for Gender Development (PAGED) initiative, that when Boko Haram came calling, he had very little time to recover his capital and so lost N7 million to the conflict.

Following the tracks of the PAGED initiative which were documenting the stories of displaced people in the North-east under a project called ‘uprooted’, THISDAY was able to speak to Ali and a couple of other business people from Bama and Malam Fatori who lost millions of naira and business stocks to Boko Haram attacks on their towns.

They spoke solely in Hausa, the paper however relied on professional interpreters provided by the PAGED initiative to communicate with them.

“I worked under one of my bosses, he used to sell oil. After working for him for some time, he gave me enough money to start my own business and I became a boss of myself. I sold petrol and kerosene,” Ali told THISDAY.

“He gave me money and a tanker and oil inside, I sold and I started bringing in my own products in a short while. Before they spoiled the town, I brought one or two tankers of petrol to sell.

“When we were about to run away, my consignment already came in and there was nothing I could do to take them back. There was no network in town during the period and there was nothing I could do, the consignment came in, I saw them, but there was nothing I could do. They (Boko Haram) burnt it down, and I even had to run away and trekked from Bama,” he added.

Ali said he lost, “about N6 to N7 million,” when his oil tanker was burnt down by the terrorists, and that he had emptied his bank account to make that purchase that turned out to be his last in Bama.

“I used to keep my money in the bank but I did one business during the fuel crisis and handover of power from Goodluck to Buhari, I removed all my money from the bank and put them in business.

“I thought putting them in the business, things will be better and I’ll put them back in the bank, but everything went down the drain. No money, the vehicle, nothing at all,” Ali explained in a rather calm voice, not seeming to hang on to the disappointment for too long.

He equally disclosed that he had N30, 000 in cash credit from people who owed him before Bama went down, but all of that counted very little to him because his debtors were not better off.

Ali told THISDAY that: “Every Muslim believes that whatever will happen will surely happen, you don’t have a say about it. We gave people before, but now people give us.”

In response to questions on his thoughts about getting back on his feet again from the misfortune, he said: “Everything is of God. If God says we will get the money back, then sure. Everything is in God’s hands.

“I came to Maiduguri, looking for my family, and I met somebody who gave me a room. I saw my family of six children and wife. But we stay in that one room now. When I was in Bama, I had enough room that I could give to people to live in.”

The PAGED initiative which the ‘uprooted’ project is documenting people’s experiences with Boko Haram and how this is changing gender norms and cultural practices in the conflict-ridden Borno State, explained to the paper that Ali’s experience was just one of a lot of others who lost business stocks and millions in cash to the insurgents.

Its Coordinator, Ms. Ummi Bukar, noted that Bama was silently affluent with lots of wealthy traders who either kept their monies at home as a cultural practice, or in banks like Ali did, in line with modern trends. Though not confirmed, Bukar, suggested that Boko Haram may have funded its operations and survival in Bama with some of the monies and stocks that were left behind by these business people.

Though not from Bama, but with similar story as that of Ali, another displaced trader, Mallam Modu Bukar, whose town, Malam Fatori was invaded by Boko Haram, also told of how his business and financial assets were sponged away by the terrorists.

While Ali kept his money in the bank, Modu Bukar never did, and so it was pretty easier for Boko Haram to get hold of his money which he said was about N10 million.

Bukar’s hometown of Malam Fatori, is near Borno’s border with Niger and Chad. It reportedly recorded fierce clashes between Nigeria’s military backed up by a multinational force, and Boko Haram fighters for its control.

It was not clear when exactly Bukar lost his livelihood and left the town, but he said: “I came from Malam Fatori. I was a businessman, a trader. I had N15 million that I was using for business.”

Continuing, he explained: “We don’t use bank, we only take money to the market and buy things. I cannot quantify the amount of goods I had that time, but I had about N10 million at that time. Because of the fight I ran to Maiduguri. Boko Haram were looking for me to give them money, I ran away and all the goods I had they burnt down.”

Asked why he never used the banks, and how he felt losing all he had to Boko Haram, Bukar stated: “We don’t keep money in the bank because we don’t believe in the bank and because of our businesses.

“Somebody will bring in goods and you have to pay instantly and the person will not be patient to wait for you to go and get money from the bank to pay, another businessman will pay and you’ll lose. It is better to stay with your money.”

“It is God’s doing, I know to eat today is very tough. Children go to school in other places, but not here. It is tough and not funny at all, we have to go out and look for menial jobs to do,” he added.

Bukar, like Ali also believes he could get back to earn as much money as he did before Malam Fatori came down to Boko Haram if God permits him to.

Resignedly, he said: “I worked with somebody in Abandan, made some money and established myself. I never thought I would make such money, but if God allows me, I’ll make it again.”

Bama’s home banking custom explained

To understand the cultural practice of home banking in Bama, as well as what may have been lost to Boko Haram from this, Bukar, explained that the practice could have been as old as the town itself.

She however noted that she could not put a figure on what may have been lost by business people who fled Bama, but noted that with the age-old practice of keeping money at home, so much must have been left behind.

“Many of the people who live in Bama are either traders or farmers or both, after speaking to many indigenes who fled from the town when Boko Haram attacked, they mostly admitted that they kept their monies at home. This is because of the nature of their trading which requires instant cash at any given time, they do not have the luxury of visiting banks before every transaction. Most of the houses in Bama were burned down, and with them probably a lot of the cash,” Bukar explained.

To give an idea of the amount of money that may have been lost to Boko Haram by Bama traders, Bukar, stated: “Some of the men and women left who didn’t escape, narrated to us how Boko Haram would come into their houses and demand for certain amount of money, sometimes millions. They did that constantly for a while before they burned down the town completely.”

Speaking further on the socio-economic work her initiative is doing to help resettle the people unsettled by Boko Haram in Borno, she said: “The project aims to capture the untold stories of women and girls who, like countless peers in the region, have shown exceptional courage and resourcefulness in safeguarding their families and helping them to survive in the midst of the Boko Haram crisis.”

These women, she added had in the process, “found opportunities, like access to livelihoods and decision-making power that would have been hard to acquire prior to the regional conflict.”

According to her, this gender-changing roles have thrown up challenges that require solutions, hence, the intervention from PAGED.

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